Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

This is such an imperfect novel and still, I love it so much. So far I have only read this and The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald, and since both novels deal with similar topics (ruined love, the corrupting power of money and the amorality of the rich) comparing them comes naturally to me. I think The Great Gatsby is the better novel of the two: it is structurally sounder, more succinct, more dramatic, and much more tragic. Tender is the Night, on the other hand, is more like a slow river: it is a meandering tale with quite a few uninteresting characters, and its end is much less dramatic and emotionally less oppressing than that of The Great Gatsby. What is more, since Tender is the Night is the long chronicle of the slow deterioration of a marriage, both truly shocking and truly uplifting episodes are virtually missing from the novel: the drama is made up of several small, disappointing moments, in the wake of which everything is slowly taking a turn for the worse. Lurking in the background, there is also a sad nostalgia for things which somehow always seemed to be better in the past. And perhaps it is because of this appealing sense of constant mellow melancholy that despite all its weaknesses I love Tender is the Night more than The Great Gatsby, and my current, umpteenth re-reading of the novel was just as heart-wrenching an experience for me as ever before.

The novel tells the story of the marriage of Dick Diver, a talented but not too aristocratic psychologist, and Nicole Warren, an illustrious member of the American monied class. Dick meets Nicole during World War I, when the mentally unstable, schizophrenic girl is being treated in a Zurich sanitarium. Nicole starts sending letters to Dick while he is away at war, and when the man returns, they renew their relationship and after a short while Dick decides to marry Nicole who is slowly but steadily recovering from her mental illness. Dick knows what he undertakes when he marries Nicole: he knows that there is a good chance that the girl will never make a full recovery, and that he will constantly have to be on the alert for signs which might indicate Nicole’s relapse into illness, and that he will have to keep shielding her from everything that might upset her or remind her of her illness. Although he does not admit it even to himself, with this marriage Dick gives up his promising career and dedicates his whole life to a single patient: Nicole. At the same time, Dick wishes to keep some of his independence and not to sponge on Nicole’s money, but the nonchalance and amorality which comes with having a lot of money slowly starts to ruin both his marriage and his personality.

What makes this novel particularly sad and melancholic is that we read virtually nothing about the happy periods of the couple’s relationship. We learn that they got married ignoring the scruples of the Warren family, and when we see them again six years later at a beautifully rustic spot on the French Riviera (which is not yet ruined by the crowds of tourists), we already witness the first signs of the collapse of their marriage. However, there are a couple of clues in the novel which indicate that the first years of the Divers’ marriage – despite the mental instability of Nicole – were truly happy, and the fact that we do not get much insight into this period makes the novel doubly sad for me: on the one hand, the sense that the Divers’ relationship was not doomed to failure makes its actual failure even more painful; on the other hand, since the happy period is only hinted at a couple of times, its importance is diminished and on the whole it feels as if it did not matter at all.

The couple, by the way, can be viewed as a two-in-one Gatsby: Dick and Nicole, just like Gatsby, are tremendously wealthy and magnetic people who throw magnificent parties, who are elegant beyond belief and can hit it off with everyone in a moment’s time, and who, at the same time, manage to keep their private lives private. So even though there are some who suspect something, no-one really knows what huge efforts it takes the couple to keep up the appearance of their perfect, elegant and active life, and hide the incessant threat of Nicole’s illness.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the major themes of the novel is the corrupting and demoralizing effect of money. This effect is manifested in the book in several different ways. First of all, Dick knows that many believe that he only married Nicole for her money. To disprove it, Dick insists for a long time that he use his own income to cover his personal expenses. However, as Nicole’s income increases and the family starts to live in a more luxurious way, Dick can no longer keep up the pretense of his independence. It is an important turning point in this respect when Dick agrees to buy his share in a sanitarium using Nicole’s money. This can be seen as a gesture of surrender, and even though Dick can again practise his profession in an institutional way, it is exactly at this point that his deterioration speeds up: he drinks more than ever, becomes an intolerable bully, and does not improve himself professionally.

Second, even though Nicole has had money all her life (and perhaps this should make her a bit more resistant), she does not escape the depraving effect of money either. During the years of her illness and the first years of her marriage, she does not care much about her wealth, but then she learns to enjoy the advantages and the power which come hand in hand with money. And as time passes, she adopts the mentality of her rational, material sister, Baby Warren, who has always regarded Dick as the pet doctor bought by the Warren family for Nicole’s personal use. So in the end, Nicole does not feel any remorse for having completely drained Dick of his talents and personal charms.

I am unable to say anything else. This is one the saddest books I have ever read, and perhaps the reason why I find it so unbearably sad is that it is beautiful and true to the core at the same time. Usually things do not end in such a dramatic fashion as in The Great Gatsby, they simply disappear slowly, and Tender is the Night conveys this in a harrowing way.

Fiesta – The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

I never used to like Hemingway’s writing. I read a couple of his books as a high-school student, but I could never learn to like his spare language, his macho protagonists reeking with testosterone, and the whole masculine, brutal world in which his novels are set. Then as a university student I had the good luck to attend a course on the American literature of the 1920s, and besides other things, here I encountered the first Hemingway novel I could love. This was Fiesta, which amazed me when I first read it, and which still amazes now, after reading it for the third time.

It’s a mystery even for me what I love about this book, as it seems to be a typical Hemingway novel just like all the others, full of masculine activities which I don’t care about a bit. I’m not interested in bullfights, and I don’t care about trout fishing (except if it’s going on in America) or the number of bottles of wine two or three healthy men can drink in the course of a hearty Spanish meal. But still, there’s something in this novel which makes my heart sink and which makes me want to re-read the book again and again.

One thing is certain, though. The strength of this novel doesn’t lie in the story, as the story is virtually non-existent. Fiesta is about a bunch of American people living in Paris or traveling in Europe who try to live a good life first in Paris, and then in Pamplona, Spain, during the fiesta. For them, living a good life means that they drink all day, wander aimlessly about the city, obsessively cling to one another’s company, break their hearts in the most diverse ways over the only important female character of the novel, the irresistible, unfaithful, unhappy Brett Ashley, and finally drink some more.

The story itself is not a big deal then, but the way Hemingway presents the events and the feelings of aimlessness and meaninglessness permeating the world he depicts is. He writes in such a simple yet colorful language that I have no trouble at all imagining the beads of water glistening on the wine bottles as they are taken out from the ice-cold water of the stream; I can see and feel the smoke meandering in the cafés and taverns; and I can also understand what makes a bullfight so attractive to many a person, or why every man wants to possess Brett. And from all the evocative descriptions I get a feel of the sad hedonism of all the characters, and of the whole era when a wealthy American expat in Europe could do absolutely anything, but of course the fact that they could do anything didn’t necessarily entail that they were happy as well.

The two main organizing forces in Fiesta are waiting and yearning, and perhaps these characteristics make the novel so heart-wrenching. The characters of the novel are constantly on the road, and they are always waiting for something: a fishing together; the beginning of the fiesta; the dinner; the next round of drinks; the arrival of the others; a bullfight; or, most of all, Brett’s presence and love. Due to this constant waiting, they can never enjoy what they are doing, because no matter what they do, the elusive spirit of Brett seems to haunt and make fun of them.

The novel, by the way, very much reminds me of two novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night. Just like Fiesta, these two novels also deal with desires which didn’t come true, with a search for happiness, and with the sadness and disillusionment necessarily following the days of manic experience-seeking. The similarity is, of course, not an accident, since Hemingway and Fitzgerald must have had some common experiences as both of them belonged to the lost generation after World War I, but still, it’s very interesting that two writers of such different styles, ways of life, and language usage created works with highly similar atmospheres.

Though I’ve never liked Hemingway, I’ve always loved Fitzgerald, and perhaps I only like Fiesta this much because it is a novel which could almost have been written by him. And even though Hemingway is a Nobel winner, while Fitzgerald is not, I still don’t consider this comparison offensive to Hemingway; and I would definitely recommend Fiesta to anyone who is not overly enthusiastic about Hemingway and doesn’t like any of his other works: read this novel, because it may well become the only novel by Hemingway you’ll love.